Two-Step Flow Model of Media Communication

By Ayesh Perera, published April 20, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


  • The two-step flow model is a theory of communication that holds that interpersonal interactions exert a significantly stronger effect on influencing public opinion than outlets of mass media do.
  • According to the two-step theory, opinion leaders who are directly influenced by mass media, help shape the views of most individuals in society. Herein, these opinion leaders pass on to their followers not only media content, but also their own interpretations thereof.
  • The two-step flow model stands in contrast to the hypodermic needle theory which posits that mass media directly influences the public, and that political media campaigns directly affect the way people vote.
  • According to the two-step theory, opinion leaders who are directly influenced by mass media, help shape the views of most individuals in society. Herein, these opinion leaders pass on to their followers.

Two-Step Flow Model of Communication

The two-step flow model posits that the media does not have a direct effect on the whole of the media audience, but is mediated through opinion leaders, who absorb the information and pass it on to their immediate social group. The two-step hypothesis suggests that opinion leaders are the crucial conduit for political information.

Origins of the Theory

The two-step flow model was introduced by Hazel Gaudet, Bernard Berelson and Paul Lazarsfeld in 1948 (Lazarsfeld, Berelson & Gaudet, 1944). Their book The People’s Choice, revealed the results of their analyses of the decision-making processes of voters during the 1940 election for President of the United States.

The authors held that content on mass media first reaches highly active media users (also known as opinion leaders) who accumulate, interpret and convey the meaning of such content to less-active consumers of mass media.

Gaudet, Berelson and Lazarsfeld had discovered that a majority of voters in the election had procured information concerning the presidential candidates not from the media directly, but from others who had read in the newspapers about the campaign.

According to the authors, while mass media’s impact upon individuals is limited, the transmission of information by word of mouth plays a vital role in the process of communication.

Paradigm Shift in Mass Communication Theory

The introduction of the two-step flow model marked a paradigm shift in mass communication theory by challenging the prevailing hypodermic needle model.

Research conducted by Lazarsfeld demonstrated that only approximately 5% of the population had altered their voting preference as a consequence of direct media consumption.

Factors such as communication with one’s family, friends, and colleagues seemed more capable of predicting one’s voting patterns than one’s exposure to media.

These discoveries, described as the ‘limited effects paradigm,’ gained more salience following the publication of The Effects of Mass Communication, by Joseph Klapper. Lazarsfeld, later collaborating with Elihu Katz, managed to further develop the two-step flow theory especially in their book Personal Influence.

Katz and Lazarsfeld (1955) contended in their work that mass communication researchers cannot treat the public as a homogenous audience that is uniformly reacting to media messages.

This, they argued, was the case because an individual’s membership in various social groups exerts more influence on his/her conduct and decision-making processes (than does direct messages from mass media).

The term ‘personal influence’ moreover, could be understood as the intervening process between mass media messaging and audience reaction. According to Katz and Lazarsfeld, media information gets channeled through to the masses by opinion leaders who have better access to media along with a deeper understanding of its content.

Furthermore, the opinion followers share much in common with opinion leaders in terms of interests, personality, and demographics.

Examples of the Model

As Professor Matthew Nisbet notes, Engineering Ambassadors, supported by the National Academy of Sciences, and Science Booster Clubs, assisted by the National Center for Science Education are examples of how opinion leaders act as intermediaries between the public and scientists (Nisbet, 2018).

Public speaker, best-selling author and talk show host Ben Shapiro is another opinion leader who has had an enormous impact upon the political landscape of the United States. While his legal education at Harvard University has equipped him to directly engage political issues portrayed in the media, his communication skills have enabled him to significantly shape what many Americans think on issues ranging from gun ownership to foreign policy.

Critical Evaluation

Danielson and Deutschmann (1960) have contended, based upon substantial evidence showing mass media messages flowing directly to the public, that the two-flow model should be applied with caution.

Everett Rogers (1962) cited in his book Diffusion of Innovations, a study wherein more than 60% of the respondents attributed to mass media (rather than interpersonal interactions) their awareness of what had been transpiring.

The aforementioned imply a greater prevalence of occurrences consistent with the hypodermic needle theory. Troldahl (1966) has noted that direct media exposure introduces discussion, and subsequently, opinion leaders assume their roles.

This view incorporates the balance theory which holds that individuals seek to preserve consistency in their beliefs by seeking the counsel of their opinion leaders when exposed to observations capable of challenging ingrained beliefs.

Finally, the greater access to media content people today enjoy reflects a substantial change in the underlying conditions from the time when the two-flow model was developed.

Empirical research into social media for instance, has discovered that the present digital landscape simultaneously facilitates one-, two- and multi-step flow theories of communication (Hilbert, Vásquez, Halpern, Valenzuela & Arriagada, 2017).

About the Author

Ayesh Perera recently graduated from Harvard University, where he studied politics, ethics and religion. He is presently conducting research in neuroscience and peak performance as an intern for the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies, while also working on a book of his own on constitutional law and legal interpretation.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Perera, A. (2022, April 20). Two-Step Flow Model of Communication. Simply Sociology.

APA Style References

Deutschmann, Paul J.; Danielson, Wayne A. (1 September 1960). "Diffusion of Knowledge of the Major News Story". Journalism Quarterly, 37(3): 345–355.

Hilbert, Martin; Vásquez, Javier; Halpern, Daniel; Valenzuela, Sebastián; Arriagada, Eduardo (August 2017). "One Step, Two Step, Network Step? Complementary Perspectives on Communication Flows in Twittered Citizen Protests". Social Science Computer Review. 35 (4): 444–461.

Katz, Elihu; Lazarsfeld, Paul Felix (1955). Personal Influence: the Part Played by People in the Flow of Mass Communications.

Lazarsfeld, P. F., Berelson, B., & Gaudet, H. (1944). The people's choice. Duell, Sloan & Pearce.

Lionberger, Herbert F (1960). Adoption of new ideas and practices a summary of the research dealing with the acceptance of technological change in agriculture, with implications for action in facilitating such change. Iowa State University Press.

Nisbet, Matthew (2018). "Ambassadors for Science: Harnessing the Power of Opinion-Leaders across Communities". Skeptical Inquirer. Amherst, New York: Center for Inquiry. 42 (2): 30–31.

Rogers, Everett M (1962). Diffusion of innovations. Free Press of Glencoe.

Troldahl, Verling C. (1966). "A Field Test of a Modified 'Two-Step Flow of Communication' Model". The Public Opinion Quarterly. 30 (4): 609–623.